One estimate is that 24,000 people are killed by lightning strikes around the world each year and about 240,000 are injured. In fact, lightning strikes are more common in mountains than in low lands. That makes them the most dangerous weapon against mountain climbers because they’re also more likely to hit lone objects on high ground.
Fortunately, we know a lot about this natural phenomenon – which is why there are some things you can do to stay safe.
Thunder and Lightning in History
These have played an important role in every society. Some worshipped this phenomena – adoring their rattling sounds and flaming light while still fearing them. It’s why thunder and lightning appear in almost every one of the world’s mythologies.
Unfortunately, worshiping the god of lightning did not make him any less dangerous to his believers. And we’re no better off, today – especially mountain climbers. Fortunately, being forewarned can really translate into being forearmed!
Why Is Lightning So Dangerous?
Lightning is an electrical discharge that occurs between clouds or between clouds and the earth. Most often, such discharges hit the nearest, and therefore, the highest places on the ground. And that’s why mountain peaks become favorite targets.
According to scientists, some 1500 lightning flashes happen around the Earth – continuously sparking millions of strikes simultaneously. This means that those who adore watching such a fantastic display of light and sound are at a higher risk of getting hit because of their need to get out and experience it firsthand.
Lightning can discharge up to 1 million volts at a speed of up to 150 meters per second. These numbers are incredibly staggering, making them extremely dangerous – especially when they hit something or someone.
Although lightning tends to hit the highest protrusions and peaks, it sometimes cheats – meaning that it doesn’t always do so. Electrical charges go for the nearest object on the ground – including someone in the middle of a forest or field.
And it isn’t true that lightning never strikes the same place twice. It can and often does – and is why you need to take all possible precautions during a storm.
How to Avoid Lightning Strikes When Hiking
Most martial artists speak of three preventive measures to avoid trouble: “Foresee. Avoid. Act.” Put another way – be sensitive to potential danger, try to steer clear of it, but if you can’t, then adapt.
Although you cannot prevent lightning strikes, you can reduce the likelihood of being hit by one – but only if you have an action plan and some back up ideas. Deferring to the wisdom and experience of martial artists, this article hopes to save as many mountain lovers as possible.
Important rule of thumb – ALWAYS check the weather forecast before you go hiking. If you know that there is a strong possibility of bad weather – postpone your trip. You can always hike another day – but only if you stay alive. Remember: safety must be your number one priority!
How to Predict a Thunderstorm?
If your mobile phone is beyond the coverage area, use your senses.
Thunderstorms never come out of the blue. They always give out tell-tale signs of their approach – including a stuffiness and the absence of any wind for many hours beforehand, followed by haze and poor visibility. If you notice these signs, expect a thunderstorm.
The Earlier, The Better
Thunderstorms, rain, and snow usually happen in the afternoon – at least in the northern hemisphere. Meaning that the best time to climb the most dangerous mountain ridges is in the early morning.
Hear the thunder? Keep your distance. Calculating the distance between yourself and that advancing storm is easy. Since light travels faster than sound, you’ll always see lightning before you hear the thunder. Once you see the lightning, count the seconds till you hear the thunder, then divide that figure by three to come up with the distance in kilometers. If the storm is at least 30 kilometers away, get to shelter at once.
Action Plan for an Approaching Thunderstorm
Don’t wait for the lightning to start hitting stuff a couple of hundred meters away from you. Though impressively beautiful, you won’t appreciate it much if you become a target. Here are some things you can do.
- In an Open Space
Hiking in the open lets you see a thunderstorm in the distance, which is great. Unfortunately, it’s also more dangerous because there’s less shelter out in the open. Solution?
1. Leave the open space
If you are in a summit or on top of a mountain ridge, leave as quickly as you can.
2. Switch off all electrical devices
Such attracts even more electrical activity. To be doubly safe, remove the batteries.
3. Find a safe and dry place
A thunderstorm usually ends in an hour or so – enough time to get seriously soaked. Try to find a rock cornice, cave, or even a tent in a dry area.
4. Be careful with caves
Though caves can keep you dry, they come with their own dangers – especially since moss and lichen can transmit electrical current. In case the lightning god strikes your cave, stay at least a meter away from the walls and three meters away from the ceiling.
5. Use a high rock or tree as a lightning rod
A rock or a tree, kept at a distance of at least 10 meters away from you, is sufficient to draw the lighting away from you or your group.
6. Isolate from the ground
That said, rocks aren’t always the best option – especially if you’re surrounded by them. Your best bet is to stay at least a meter away from one during a lightning storm. Remember: the gap mustn’t be more than the height of the cliff.
7. Assume a safe posture
Whether you’re in out in the open or in a sheltered place, assume the following position for your safety: (1) squat, (2) lower your head and wrap your arms around your legs, (3) keep your feet together to protect yourself from the zippered step. For additional safety, keep a tourist rug (folded several times) or a dry rope under your feet.
8. Avoid Walking
If in an open area, stop walking, as that puts you at a higher risk of getting hit. If do you have to walk, don’t do so continuously – stop occasionally.
- In the Forest
Thunderstorms in the forest are trickier as they can be harder to detect and you’re surrounded by more potential targets. If you’re with a group, do a quick headcount – especially if lightning strikes near you. Do not wait for a reply if one of your group is some distance from you – get to them ASAP. They might need immediate help.
Pick your trees carefully
Don’t pitch your tent near oaks since they’re virtual lightning magnets. Maple and birch, on the other hand, are the safest trees against lightning.
Avoid lone trees!
They’re also lightning magnets. Some hikers try to shelter under lone trees – a big mistake you must avoid.
Water is a lousy electrical conductor. So if lightning hits it, the electrical current will zip across the surface in all directions. If you’re in the water, it’ll definitely zap you, and if you’re near the water, you stand a good chance of getting electrocuted. So stay away from lakes, springs, and even puddles. Therefore:
- Keep your skin and hair as dry as possible
- If in a ravine, pay attention to the direction of the storm water run-off, and stay as far away from it as possible.
4 . Be careful with metal equipment
Experienced hikers keep all metal away from their shelter. This includes trekking sticks, ice axes, metal tableware, etc. You can even turn them into a lightning rod if you can stack them up higher than your shelter or on a slope higher than where you’re staying. A safe distance is about 50 meters away.
5. Put out campfires (if any)
A pillar of smoke is an ionized gas that can transmit electricity – making it another no-no in the presence of the lightning god.
Latent Danger of Lightning
Lightning strikes are bad enough, but even if you avoid a direct hit, that doesn’t mean you’re out of danger. Electromagnetic induction can still hurt you if electricity strikes at a distance of one meter or less – meaning that if lightning strikes close enough, the current can still pass through your body.
The result is a slight crackle followed by glowing blue sparks and a tingling at the tips of your nose, ears, and fingers. If you aren’t wearing a cap, your hair may become electrified – causing it to stand and crackle. You may not get hurt, but you should take it as a final warning and get off the mountain ASAP.
Lightning First Aid
- Light Strikes
Though direct lightning strikes wreak havoc on the body, they are not fatal – at least in most cases. Nevertheless, if you are hit, you need urgent medical help.
Symptoms of a light lightning strike include:
- Nervous shock
Action Plan – How to help the victim in three steps:
- Warm them up with blankets,
- Give them complete peace,
- Give them painkillers and soothing drugs.
- Hard Strikes
Hard strikes are way more dangerous, and therefore, potentially fatal. If someone’s been hit by a hard strike, assess their condition and take immediate action.
- Depression of cardiac activity.
Action Plan — How to help the victim in three steps:
- Call an ambulance or emergency helicopter.
- Perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation.
- Apply medicines that stimulate cardiac contractions and respiration
If there are several victims, help them according to the urgency of their need. The one who can’t breathe is the obvious priority, but try to help them all at the same time if possible.
Do your best to maintain a calm and confident manner. If necessary, carry their stuff as you go down.
Hopefully, this information will save your life and those of others when hiking. Tell your hike-mates about these action plans, just in case. If possible, simulate an emergency before your hike so everyone knows what to do.
Take care and never underestimate the danger!